Calli Armstrong, MA, PhD, RDT, CCC

Calli Armstrong is a leader in the field of drama therapy research and practice. I have personally been inspired by Calli’s ongoing commitment to the field of drama therapy and her scholarly pursuit of the field. Calli has lead the way for drama therapist’s seeking PhD’s in related fields in Canada.

I had the honour to be part of Calli’s lab at McGill University; a placement I am sure I would not have acquired if Calli had not proven her capacity as an award wining student researcher and as a clinician. I feel that Calli’s latest Post Doctoral work (see below) is much needed and helps to build a repertoire for communication within our field and helps to move the field of drama therapy towards more acceptance among practitioners and researchers in the social sciences.

Not only is Calli an amazing researcher, but she is also well received as a teacher in the fields of both drama therapy and counselling psychology. I have heard amazing feedback from colleagues who have had the opportunity to attend her classes. Calli has also always maintained her close ties with the field of theatre (acting, directing, and producing). She has created and performed in charity fund raisers for various organizations in Montreal and is an active member of the Montreal playback community. If ever you find yourself in Montreal, you should definitely check out Beautiful City Theatre, a theater company Calli co-founded in 2012.

Calli accomplishes all of this with grace, dignity, humility, and generosity. She has always offered me an empathetic ear and clear and honest feedback, and she is always willing to help a student or colleague work through personal or professional challenges.

Alisha Henson (MA, RDT, PhD student McGill University)
NADTA Canadian Representative and Canadian Chapter President

1. Please tell us what has been your path to drama therapy.

When asked about my journey to where I am now, I often think of a sine wave: Smooth. Repetition. Oscillation. When looked at from a distance, the direction and pattern seem obvious. Predictable. Yet, when experiencing it, it feels like you are always moving, always moving away from something, and then towards it, and then away from something, and then towards it again.
For years, theatre and psychology existed for me as separate entities, separate interests which I would oscillate between. In terms of academic study, career trajectory, and community involvement, it would always be one or the other, not both simultaneously.

Similar to many drama therapists, I first “discovered” drama therapy while doing a lot of theatre. Through both participating in and facilitating theatre processes, I realized that there was ‘something more’ to it --- these processes were powerful and could impact participants’ and witnesses’ lives in a meaningful way. People seemed to deepen their self-understanding and develop greater empathy for others through these processes.

Then, one day in the library, I stumbled upon Phil Jones’ Drama as Therapy: Theatre as Living and everything made sense. Or, at the very least, there were words to describe some of the things I had intuited, and I suddenly had a potential career path that brought together my interests.

So, following my interdisciplinary undergrad, studying drama therapy was the next logical step, and I completed my MA in drama therapy at Concordia University. Nearing the end of the program, I realized I still craved an academic environment and wanted to stay in school. I was hungry to do research and I wanted to know more about the helping professions in general and train further. So I completed a PhD in Counselling Psychology at McGill University and kept theatre in a separate compartment of my life. Once again…. I separated theatre and psychology from one another.

2. What theories have influenced your development as a drama therapist?

Though I first stumbled on Jones’ work before I even knew what drama therapy was, his articulation of the drama therapy processes continued to influence my development as a scholar and researcher. I gained a renewed appreciation of his work when I learned more about common factors research in psychotherapy as part of my comprehensive examination in my doctoral studies. I appreciated both “big picture” perspectives, and became curious about the potential relationship between the two.

As a clinician, I think that person-centered therapy and the work of Carl Rogers have strongly influenced my development as a drama therapist. I think the focus on the therapeutic relationship, empathy, genuineness, and really meeting-people-where-they-are-at, fit with both my value system and my clinical intuition. In working from this framework in both my clinical and community work, I facilitate drama therapy processes through the relationship.

The other strong influence on my work has been playback theatre. The form and process of playback intrigued me from the time of my intro to drama therapy class. I have had the privilege of training and playing with a variety of playback groups in Montreal, and I continue to be in awe of how the framework makes the empathy cycle (Barrett-Lennard, 1981) larger-than-life. There is empathic resonation, an attempt to communicate that resonation and understanding, and a reception and awareness of that communication, followed by more empathic resonation. I have used playback theatre processes and drawn on this framework of communication and validation in my clinical and community work.

3. What are your current projects and the path of your work?

Colleagues and friends of mine joke that everything I do focuses on “process.” This is currently true of all elements of my work and play.  

The theatre company that I run is process-oriented. I am the co-founder and artistic director of Beautiful City Theatre (BCT - Théâtre Belle Cité), a Montreal based not-for-profit organization that embodies many of the principles of Drama therapy. The goal of BCT is to create and celebrate community through the sharing and exploration of theatre processes and the performance of theatre productions. BCT engages with projects, pieces, and events which challenge and enrich the participants’ understanding of relationships and humanity, and which build an appreciation for theatre and theatre processes. BCT aims to create a rich and challenging learning environment for community members and artists through the intentional use of relationship and ensemble focused experiential work. The exact process is unique to each project that we take on. At times the work has included elements of therapeutic theatre, clowning, collective creation, and theatre of the oppressed.

The BCT team believes that there is perfection in imperfection; every person has value, has a story to tell, and is worth celebrating; the success of a performance cannot be measured by the size of an audience; theatre has the power to make an impact on society and change lives; and in theatre, the process is just as important as the ‘product.’ BCT is founded on principles of acceptance and the work focuses on the journey and not the destination. We’re excited to be busily preparing for our fourth season. 

Outside of many theatre happenings and my work as a counsellor at McGill University, the other aspect of my life that keeps me busy is my research. I have a background in psychotherapy process research from my training with the McGill Psychotherapy Process Research Group (MPPRG), and my current research explores change processes in drama therapy. I recently completed a research postdoc in drama therapy at Concordia. Through this fellowship, I (along with a strong team of researchers) have been working to operationalize definitions of some of the core drama therapy constructs. We started with dramatic projection and embodiment, and we are exploring relationships between these constructs and other variables that impact client outcome.  We are attempting to build a bridge between psychotherapy process research and drama therapy, and through this connection, strengthen our understanding of both.  As this area of research blossoms, I hope that others will pursue this area of investigation, so that we might build on one another’s work.

On a related note, I am excited about the possibility of serving on the NADTA board as Research Chair for the upcoming years. I am dedicated to promoting research in the field of drama therapy and hope to encourage new researchers to bring their projects to fruition.

4. How do you see the future of drama therapy evolving?

I think of my response to this question in terms of “hopes.” I hope that the field continues to grow in terms of the number of practitioners working, and the number of people advocating for the work that we do. I hope that our forms of practice continue to evolve to be as inclusive as possible and to meet the diverse needs of our clients and the communities we work with. I also hope that this evolution is informed by both the drama therapy community’s collective creativity and also from a research-based understanding of what we know to be helpful and not helpful. I also hope that as we evolve we continue to appreciate the commonalities in our work and approaches, and that we continue to explore and celebrate those commonalities.

5. What does your NADTA membership mean to you?

To me, NADTA membership means being part of a community. It brings me a sense of connection to some of my colleagues that I am far away from. Membership and conference participation brings me opportunities to learn from my colleagues and mentors, and for that I am very grateful.

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Calli Armstrong, MA, PhD, RDT, CCC

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